Legalese 101: What is a Plea Bargain?

By Stephanie Rabiner, Esq. on March 14, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We here at FindLaw know that legal jargon can be confusing. We hear people misusing legal words and phrases all the time. So we've decided to help you better understand all the legal phrases tossed around on Law & Order. Here is a new educational series we like to call FindLaw's Legalese 101.

If you've been watching the news lately, chances are you've been bombarded with anchors talking about some sort of plea bargain. It's been reported that Lindsay Lohan rejected an offered plea bargain on charges she stole a necklace. Plus Mel Gibson accepted a plea bargain related to charges that he battered baby mama and alleged blackmailer Oksana Grigorieva.

If you think only celebrities are offered plea bargains, you'll be happy to know that an overwhelming majority of criminal cases are resolved well before trial with a plea bargain. And here is how it's done.

In addition to having discretion as to whether or not to file charges, prosecutors are also able to choose the kind of punishment a criminal defendant may face. By extension, prosecutors are also able to negotiate with defendants and their lawyers in hopes of cutting a deal. Or, in legalese, agree on a plea bargain.

A plea bargain is essentially an agreement by the defendant to plead guilty or no contest to certain charges. In exchange, the prosecution agrees to drop other charges or stipulates a lower sentence. The purpose is to lessen the burden on courts, the prosecutor's office, and to provide the defendant with a better outcome.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys are adept at analyzing evidence to determine likely outcomes at trial. Once each side has done an assessment, the parties meet to hash out a deal. Negotiations consider, for example, the strength of the evidence, the types of charges and their sentences, the circumstances surrounding the crime, and even the impact of a trial.

In theory, any criminal defendant can agree to a plea bargain and receive a lesser punishment. Besides the facts of the case, the key to an agreement as lenient as the ones Lindsay Lohan has had in the past, and the one Mel Gibson has just signed, is a good criminal defense attorney. These are the people who really know how to negotiate.

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